Monday, 14 March 2011

Goths Versus Vandals

The beautiful village of Hesket Newmarket in the Caldbeck Fells is home to the Old Crown reputedly Britain’s first co-operative pub. Today when the greed of pubco’s and cut price supermarket beer is driving a swathe through Britain’s pubs it is good to hear of a community coming together to take control of an important local institution.
The good folk of the village had earlier come together to save the brewery behind the pub when it came on the market keen to save the prize winning ales.
Julian Ross, who led the bid by customers to take ownership of the pub, said “People say they don’t care about making a return on their investment. They want to preserve something that is important for the community. Regulars and visitors alike always find a warm welcome, great home cooked food (including the famous Old Crown curries), a friendly smile and a truly superb range of real ales.”
When in the depths of the recession almost 40 pubs were closing a week, community co-operative ownership had been successful in saving village shops, so it was a short step to apply the model to pubs. In March last year in response to this success the government announced a £3.3million support program to help develop community owned pubs.
Needless to say despite the ‘Big Society’ rhetoric the Condem’s by August had bought the axe to the program. In January this year anxious to help the 82 communities left high and literally dry, a group including, the Plunket Foundation, Co-operatives UK, the Co-op Group and CAMRA (there are now seven community owned pubs in the Good Beer Guide) came together with a support package. Community ownership however is not just the middle classes playing at landlord.
The Star Inn, in Higher Broughton, Salford, was given three weeks’ notice of closure last summer but locals clubbed together, now it is back in business as Britain’s first urban community-owned co-operative pub.
Local Margaret Fowler has said: "The Star Inn has been part of the community since 1867. People really missed it when it was closed down and that brought us all together to invest our own cash to re-open the pub. It really was easy to set it up as a co-operative and now we have got our pub back, it’s the most fantastic feeling in the world."
Now this seems like a new idea but it got me thinking because I first visited a community owned pub on a trip to Scotland many years ago. It was in Newtongrange or Nitten as it is known locally. Home of the Lady Victoria Colliery, in 1890, it was the largest coal mining village in Scotland. Sadly the pit has gone and today it is home to the Scottish Mining Museum.
Despite all the changes the village has seen one local institution has stood steadfastly by the community both as an important social centre and as a benefactor - the Dean Tavern.
Back in the 1890’s the pit generated a lot of thirsty miners. It was a struggle for the Lothian Coal Company to get a license against a strong temperance movement. Resistance was overcome by agreeing to open a pub on “Gothenburg Principles”.
The Gothenburg principles come from the Swedish City. Sweden had a huge drink problem in the nineteenth century with every house owner legally allowed to have their own still.
In 1855 a law was passed banning domestic distilling and giving local authorities powers to grant licenses. The city of Gothenburg pioneered a system in which spirit licences were awarded to a trust which ran licensed premises in a way that would not encourage excessive drinking.
The premises were to be clean but unattractive, with employees having no interest in pushing sales to make a profit and the shareholders limited to a 5% return. All profits above 5% were to go to the City to be used to benefit the local community. It was a system that proved to be extremely profitable.
The idea was taken up by public house reformers and temperance campaigners in Scotland. Public house trusts or Goths were set up in Peebles, Leven, Clydebank, Broxburn and Tranent but most dramatically with the coal companies in Central Scotland.
There were 'Goths' in the Lothians, Stirlingshire, Ayrshire, and in Fife, where the system really took off. Often like in Nitten the coal companies were the source of funds and were a dominant force on the trust boards, but miners too contributed capital and gained representation.
Despite the fact the pubs were not to be welcoming, no credit, no betting, no gambling, no games or amusements (even dominoes was banned), the community facilities and beneficiaries funded by them was huge. They funded libraries, museums, parks, bowling and cricket grounds and pavilions, cinemas, community centres or 'Gothenburg halls' and gave grants to galas, charities, clubs and societies and even funded district nurses and ambulances.
In its first year of 1900-01 the Dean Tavern generated a profit of £340. Over the years the pub has contributed enormously to the village. Without it the place would be without numerous village landmarks that exist because of the Deans profits. Today the Trust continues to support village societies with annual grants and during the miner's strike of 1984-85, they provided the Miners Women's Support Group with £50 worth of food a week.
The Dean you may argue has been lucky there where over 2,500 pub closures last year. Clearly the pressure pubs are under from unsympathetic government policy and greedy pub companies and brewers is immense. In this environment the idea of community owned pubs is firmly back on the agenda it is time to save the ‘Goths’ from the Vandals!

Friday, 4 March 2011

There Really is an Alternative!

The Tories and their mates in the City are fond of telling us there is no alternative to their world vision. Corporate capitalism has won and we must embrace market fundamentalism at whatever cost to our environment, to our productive economy, to our international relationships or indeed to our relations with one another.

Well despite those Tory doomsayers for the best part of forty years in a disused quarry in mid Wales there has been a place where not only has an alternative future been thought about it has also been demonstrated to work!

Last year with the opening of their newest institute, the Centre for Alternative Technology, was credited with opening the ‘building of the year’ by of all publications the Daily Telegraph!

The new Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (Wise) was described not only as “an extremely worthy building but a ravishingly beautiful one too”. There is no doubt CAT founded in 1973 on the site of the disused Llwyngwern slate quarry near Machynlleth, in Mid Wales has really come of age.

Founder Gerard Morgan-Grenville, was well ahead of our contemporary concerns about the environment when he started the organisation that he conceived as "a project to show the nature of the problem and show ways of going forward."

It was originally a community dedicated to eco-friendly principles and a 'test bed' for new ideas and technologies. In the beginning, progress in the quarry was slow, and the early attempts to raise money were frustrating. Volunteers worked long hours, often by candlelight - there was no electricity on the site at the time.
Well they say it is better to light a candle than to sit in the dark! He had realised that if we are to tackle the threat to the environment we need to completely rethink the way we live and how we make our living. Today as a testament to his vision the centre is a world leader in alternative, environmentally sustainable technology.

What is more Machynlleth is not just the home of a world class centre of education and research it is also the home of one of the world leaders in renewable energy. That business is Dulas, originally spun out from CATS in 1982, the green energy consultancy business now based on the Dyfi Eco Park, near the railway station, began with just 18 staff and a turnover in 2000 of £1.4million today it has over 80 staff and a turnover of £12million plus.

There are few parts of the world today with renewable energy development taking place where you will not find someone from Dulas. It is involved in bringing proven technology to the market place in four main areas, solar photovoltaics, hydropower, biomass and wind energy. It operates throughout the supply chain, from feasibility and resource assessment through to installation, project management, operation and maintenance.

In operating across the world Dulas has, for example, as a solar supplier to the World Health Organisation and Unicef, won numerous awards for its work including being crowned, Company of the Year at the British Renewable Energy Awards in 2009.
At those British Renewable Energy Awards the company was rewarded for its diversity in providing solar DVD players and vaccine refrigeration solutions in Africa through to grid connected PV and hydro power in the UK.

It also won a co-operative enterprise award in 2009. Because as you may have guessed Dulas is a worker co-operative - its workers are also its owners.
They believe that being a worker owned business brings a very high level of commitment and application. They enjoy an open business culture where business development and performance are communicated to all the employee-owners on a company wide basis encouraging high levels of staff retention. They donate up to 3% of company profits each year to charity and invest heavily in staff welfare. Ownership of the business and its success is shared across the whole enterprise.

Modern capitalism has a great deal of sunk costs in the existing ways of doing business, there are a lot of powerful people whose power comes from controlling our access to carbon based energy, and they are working hard to maintain our dependency on their products. You only have to look at our Governments relationships with big oil to see that rather than helping us to wean ourselves off oil they are keen to maintain that dependency.

The technologies being developed at CATS and disseminated by Dulas could if we where smart enough break the embrace of these planet destroying technologies. I am certain that there will very soon be a time when we will be grateful not only for the work they have already done but also for the way in which they are doing it.

The future is not only in decentralised renewable energy but in also workers and community ownership and control of those very energy supplies. The uprisings in the Middle East show that tyrannical rule by kleptocrats is, like the carbon based energy they supply, unsustainable. We have to escape a situation in which every time we turn on our central heating we are propping up the Emir of Qatar. The pressure for alternative energy will grow with the realisation that we will no longer be able to hold down entire populations whilst we steal their energy.
If we are to liberate ourselves from the corruption and environmental damage that comes with big oil and gas Dulas will need to get a lot more work.

Whilst it may only today be a small example of what is possible it’s very existence and its remarkable growth clearly demonstrate that there is an alternative.